Rays trade Zobrist, Escobar to Athletics for three players

Ben Zobrist is 33 years old. Yunel Escobar is 32 years old.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays traded utility man Ben Zobrist and shortstop Yunel Escobar to the Oakland Athletics on Saturday in exchange for catcher John Jaso plus two minor-league prospects, shortstop Daniel Robertson and outfielder Boog Powell.

The Rays also announced the signing of free-agent infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, a two-time All-Star, to a one-year, $7.5 million deal.

"This has been a difficult transaction for all of us to stomach, and there are a lot of heavy hearts in the organization today," Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said. "Ben has been a central figure in the transformation of the organization, and he epitomizes the Rays’ brand of baseball. I can talk about him for hours. He’s immensely talented, everyone knows about his versatility, and he’s known for being a selfless player who puts the team first." 

Trade speculation had surrounded Zobrist, 33, throughout the offseason with the Rays trying to decrease their payroll from the franchise-high $80 million they totaled last season. A two-time All-Star selection, he’s scheduled to make $7.5 million next season and become a free agent after the 2015 campaign.

Still, his departure means the end of a successful era. Zobrist joined the then-Devil Rays in the 2006 season from the Houston Astros, following a trade in July 2006 that involved Aubrey Huff, and has hit .264 with 114 home runs and 511 RBI in 1,064 regular-season games played with Tampa Bay. He earned All-Star appearances in the 2009 and 2013 seasons. 

Zobrist is considered one of the most efficient versatile players in the majors, having appeared at all positions except catcher and pitcher during his time with Tampa Bay. He has a career-high 547 regular-season appearances at second base. He ends his time with the Rays as the franchise’s career leader in doubles (229) and walks (542), and he ranks second to Carl Crawford in games played (1,064), hits (1,016), triples (32) and runs scored (565).

Meanwhile, Escobar, 32, declined defensively last season after a strong 2013 campaign, his first with the Rays, when he was named an American League Gold Glove Award finalist. He had 16 errors in 2014, an increase from the seven committed in the previous season. He hit .258 with seven home runs and 39 RBI in 137 games with Tampa Bay last season, and he’s scheduled to make $5 million this year. The A’s showed interest in him last season by claiming him off revocable waivers in August, but a trade was never completed.

The Rays’ returns, meanwhile, are intriguing. 

Jaso, 31, returns to Tampa Bay, where he spent parts of three seasons in 2008 and 2010-2011 before being traded to the Seattle Mariners in November 2011. He hit .264 with nine home runs and 40 RBI in 99 games for Oakland last season. He started 47 games at catcher and 32 at designated hitter for the Athletics in 2014. All of his starts last season were against right-handed pitching, and he owns a .272 batting average, .368 on-base percentage and .424 slugging percentage against right-handers. 

"He’s a kind of offensive player that our lineup is missing against right-handed pitching, and we’re looking forward to great production at the plate from him," Silverman said. "In terms as his positions, we’re looking at him as a hitter first, but he has versatility, whether that’s as a catcher or another position. I know he’s eager to explore that versatility in spring training." 

Rays encores

In addition, Robertson, 20, was voted as the top prospect in Oakland’s system by MLB.com and Baseball America. Last season, he hit .310 with 15 home runs and 60 RBI in 132 regular-season games with Class-A Stockton.

Silverman said Robertson was the "lead piece" in the trade from the Rays’ perspective. Although Friedman admitted prospects’ trajectories are uncertain, he said Tampa Bay was willing to bet on Robertson’s ceiling. 

"It takes a large trade like this for us to be able to acquire someone of his talents," Silverman said. "He’s a baseball player. He’s someone who has great baseball skills, can play in the middle of the diamond, has a hitter’s mentality and has great potential to grow into an everyday player."

Later Saturday, Robertson released a statement about his move. 

"I can’t thank the Oakland Athletics enough for drafting me in 2012 and giving me an opportunity to fulfill my childhood dreams in being a professional baseball player," he wrote. "Understanding the circumstances and the business side of the game I want to wish the organization from top to bottom nothing but the best moving forward. Now looking forward to see what God has in store with me and the Tampa Bay Rays!"

Powell, 21, was ranked the 11th-best prospect in Oakland’s system by MLB.com. Last season was split between Class-A Beloit and Stockton, and he led the Athletics’ system with a .343 batting average and a .451 on-base percentage.

Meanwhile, Cabrera, 29, split last season between the Cleveland Indians and Washington Nationals, where he hit .241 with 14 home runs, and 61 RBI in 146 games (142 starts). He earned All-Star appearance in the 2011 and 2012 seasons and is a career .268 hitter with 87 home runs and 451 RBI in parts of eight major-league seasons. 

Silverman said he anticipates Cabrera being an everyday player for the Rays somewhere in the middle infield. Silverman also said that utility man Nick Franklin, given his versatility, will have a chance to play a more prominent role after making a debut with the Rays late last season following his addition from the Mariners via the three-team trade that sent ace left-hander David Price to the Detroit Tigers in July.

Still, Zobrist’s departure is the headline development from the deal. A valued member of the Rays’ growth, after many years of memories, is gone.  

"These trades are difficult, but they’re a necessary part of how we operate," Silverman said. "That doesn’t take away the sting. We understand our constraints, and we adhere to the formula. In an ideal world, we don’t choose to make these kinds of trades. But we don’t have the luxury to do that."

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.